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Nothing In Its Place: The Blank Page

The installation of Robert Ryman white paintings on white walls at Dia Beacon. Crisp, white sheets on a freshly made bed. Keith Smith’s ruminations on a blank book in Structure of the Visual Book. The stare of the blank canvas confronting Lily Briscoe in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. The tonal meditation of In the White Silence by composer John Luther Adams.

These are a few of my favorite (no)things, all instances in which emptiness is not nothing, or nothing is something.

Exploring the distinction between nothing and emptiness in a recent “Talk About Nothing,” composer Philip Glass spoke about empty space in music as a place where “without emptiness nothing can happen, with it everything can happen.”1 This is a core tenet in the Buddhist philosophy of Śūnyatā, wherein all things arise from emptiness; fullness and emptiness are integral. Following these linkages further, the word sūnyatā comes from the Sanskrit śūnya: ‘zero, nothing,’ which in turn in Arabic is as-sifr, which means ‘absence of anything’. This is the origin of the English word ‘cipher’. Although cipher means zero, nothing of value, or someone who is a nonentity, it also means secret writing, symbolic encryptions or coded messages. Etymologically, nothing has become something.2

Absence and blankness are signposts of both modernity and post-modernity. This essay can’t begin to account for the writing, art, music and philosophy developed around this theme in the 20th century and continuing to the next. For a succinct compilation of many of these modernist works, there is All or Nothing: An anthology of blank books,3 a three-volume slip-cased set by William Gibbs. It ranges from John Cage’s 1952 composition 4’33” and Richard Kostelanetz’s 1978 book Tabula Rasa to Sonic Youth’s recording of 63 seconds of silence. The works Gibbs describes, including many blank books, are illustrated with empty folios captioned with artist/author, title and date. A second version of the anthology is included, printed in white ink on white paper, as well as his revised 1982 writing, Somevolumesfromthelibraryofbabel.

The Binnewater Tides
Women’s Studio Workshop Press
Volume 9, No. 2, Summer, 1992